World title race resumes with Fanning always a threat at J-Bay

Two years ago, the whole event was overshadowed by a shark encounter during the final heat. It was an image that will stay with surf fans and casual observers for quite a while.

Last year, Mick Fanning achieved the ultimate redemption tale by coming back to the site of his harrowing run-in with the ocean predator to earn the contest victory.

This year’s J-Bay Open, or the Corona Open J-Bay, doesn’t have that same compelling story line to drive the narrative but there are a ton of interesting possibilities with such a crowded world title race in the works.

South Africa should provide at least a bit of separation with four surfers all within just 600 points of current leader, Matt Wilkinson. After his win in Fiji, Wilkinson slid ahead of John John Florence, Jordy Smith, Adriano de Souza and Owen Wright. But any of those five could easily leave Jeffreys Bay with the yellow jersey as we move past the halfway mark of the 2017 season.

Despite being further down the leaderboard (currently 13th), Fanning is a monster threat to jump back towards the top of the heap. Fanning is a four-time event winner. He’s made the final at J-Bay for three straight years and won two of those. The only “second place” was when the final was stopped due to his shark encounter. Last year, Fanning only surfed five CT contests, but he made sure to be there for J-Bay and ended up on top. It was his only win of the season and it was enough to help ensure he could re-qualify for 2017 without having to grind out a long schedule.

I love Fanning’s chances to once again be a major factor on finals day. He’s just too accomplished at this location and, despite a below average start to his season, this is always where he shines brightest.

Sebastian Zietz is still looking for his first finals day of 2017, but he enters the event ranked 10th for the season. Zietz has avoided all early exits, which is the best recipe to stay comfortably within the qualification bubble. He’s been sharp, he’s been focused and he’s stayed in control more so than any other year. There haven’t been many high points at J-Bay, but that’s probably more bad luck than anything else because it seems like a wave that should suit his style on bigger days.

Florence is looking to rebound after back-to-back 13th-place results. He’s been bounced by a wild card and a rookie in the last two contests, first falling to Yago Dora in Saquarema and Leonardo Fioravanti in Fiji. The guys with nothing to lose may be the only ones who don’t have any fear of John John because he’s consistently crushed the rest of the men’s elite.

I also like Owen Wright to make a deep run and potentially head to Teahupoo with the yellow jersey. The extended layoff should have provided him with some recovery time and he was a semifinalist at J-Bay in 2014.

One of the best parts of J-Bay each season is that it works out to prime time television here in Hawaii. Hopefully the action lives up to its time slot. With the world title race where it is, there’s no reason for us to be disappointed.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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